The combat-aircraft cockpit has some sort of magical attraction to all who fly and those who would like to fly. It is the throne room in which aerial warriors, both past and present, sat and engaged in that rare form of combat that is built around the third dimension. It was—and is—man and machine wielding their mechanical swords in life-and-death struggles that have found their way into every form of modern mythology, whether on the written page or on the silver screen. The cockpit was the incubator in which a unique form of hero was born.
What follows is a brief sampling of photographer Dan Patterson’s graphic storytelling in which combat cockpits are the central characters. We lifted these out of the recent book Fighting Cockpits, written by longtime author Donald Nijboer and photographed by Patterson, both past Flight Journal contributors.
The concept we’ve come to know as a “cockpit” was not part of the Wright Brothers’ original vision when they designed those first airplanes. In fact, it was some time after they successfully figured out how to temporarily nullify gravity that even a single instrument was onboard their machines. At some point, however, they asked themselves, “I wonder how high I am?” and the altimeter was born. Then the question was “How fast am I going?” Then systems questions involving rpms, temperatures, fluid volumes, etc., quickly fertilized the instrument industry. This gave birth to the need for a place to mount those gauges and the pilot’s instrument panel was born. The concept of an actual cockpit was part of the search for ways to mount the instrument panel and streamline the fuselage at the same time.
From the earliest and crudest cockpits, where instruments were strewn about with little organization, to the mighty bombers like the B-52, which were orgies of instrumental organization, the cockpit has continued to evolve. The following pages attempt to show that evolution, organized according to airplane type (e.g., fighter, bomber, etc.).
Read the article from the February 2018 issue of Flight Journal, click here.
by Bud Davisson & Donald Nijboer Photos by Dan Patterson